Disabled Activists Demand Installation of Audible Crosswalks on the Upper East Side

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By Jenny Marc As a child, everyone is taught to look both ways before crossing the street. But for certain people, looking isn't always an option. "As you can see-those of you who can see me-I am vertically challenged," Milagros Franco said from her electric wheelchair. "With large crowds of people, I can't see the crosswalk signs. People block my way because they forget I'm there." Whether they're vision-impaired or confined to a wheelchair, some New Yorkers need assistance navigating crowded intersections. And last week, they came from across the city to the Upper East Side to make their voices heard. Last Wednesday, blind and disabled activists dominated the public session portion of Community Board 8's full board meeting, repeatedly speaking up about the need for audible pedestrian signals at busy crosswalks in the neighborhood. Their testimonies came in response to the community board's December meeting, where plans to install the devices were rejected by several residents who expressed concerns that they would waste money and create noise pollution. "It is a matter of basic dignity for the independence of people who are blind and visually impaired. I know there are some people who say, 'Well, just find someone to help you across the street,'" Charles Gourgey explained to the crowd. "Those days are gone. We are now in an age where people with disabilities are more independent than ever and deserve the respect and treatment as equals, and not as other or inferior." Of New York City's roughly 12,500 intersections, only 48 have an audible pedestrian signal, which can be either beeps or verbal messages to announce when it is safe to walk. The New York City Department of Transportation is now required to install 25 new audible pedestrian signal units each year, and proposed locations on the Upper East Side include 72nd, 79th, 86th and 96th streets. Following the eight speakers, Chair Nicholas Viest reminded the audience that the community board does not control whether audible pedestrian signal devices actually get installed. "We don't have real power," he began. "Well, we have power in the sense that we can advise the city government or the state government, but this is an advisory role-that's important for everyone to know." Despite the serious tone, and in some instances, tearful speeches, overall, the group of activists was pleased with the meeting, Afterwards, a community board member thanked them for bringing awareness to the issue, and in general, the activists felt better understood. "I feel like [the meeting] was a really positive situation," said Gabriela Amari, who also spoke at the hearing. "We weren't out there to attack. We just needed to get out there and educate the board as to how important these signals are."

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